With her denial of President Obama's budget request for $4.4 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan, citing corruption, Rep. Nita Lowey has opened an opportunity to examine the principal forms of assistance to the country -- what works and what doesn't. The fact is that all Afghan development programs are not alike. Lowey would do well to redirect the funds which were destined for USAID, which would be most of the funds in question, to Afghanistan's widely-hailed National Solidarity Program (NSP), which thus far has managed to elude Karzai government rapaciousness, and begun to lift 40% of this population which is malnourished into their own economic destiny.
What is now understood beyond the shadow of a doubt is that military operations can serve no further purpose in Afghanistan, and the focus must be on what works and what doesn't in terms of civilian aid. Congress must vote "no" this week on funding for anything but orderly withdrawal, and such carefully-targeted assistance. If we abandon Afghanistan economically as we have so often in the past after it has served our "Great Game" purposes, people will again starve en masse and civil war will ensue.
President Obama himself acknowledged last Sunday at the Toronto G-20 that the Taliban is a "mix of hardcore ideologues and kids who sign up because it's the best job they can get."
The NSP has in the past distinguished itself for competent, village-led projects and the organization of more than 30,000 elected village councils. The village councils vote on the way grants will be spent, whether it be for the clearing of irrigation canals, digging new irrigation trenches, or basic leveling and improvement of dirt roads, which are the vast majority of the roads in Afghanistan. The projects aim at hiring local youth at dignified labor which helps their own communities.
War hawks cite the mantra that "we don't do nation-building," but so far we have spent $250 billion in military operations in a country with an entire GDP of $12 billion a year. That's pretty expensive "non-nation-building" compared to the $4 billion Lowey is denying.
What distinguishes the NSP is the multiple layers of review of projects and costs before any funds are released. The funds themselves are held in trust outside of Afghanistan in an account managed by the World Bank, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. The NSP has so far implemented more than 25,000 village level projects, with villagers actively involved in all phases. Accounts for ongoing projects are posted publically for all villagers to scrutinize, often nailed to trees.
A 2007 article in the Washington Monthly which positively reviewed the NSP, "The Schools the Taliban Won't Torch," reported that:
"The World Bank estimates that projects built by the NSP in Afghanistan are on average 30 percent cheaper than those built by foreign NGOs. And unlike too many other development projects in Afghanistan, the NSP doesn't involve American troops."
Furthermore, the NSP is the program which has been most shortchanged in the past. Frankie Sturm reports for Wired Magazine:
"Hundreds of billions of dollars into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent a paltry sum on one of the few programs that has been hailed as a success by Afghans and international aid groups alike."
The absence of foreign troops in this development model is a key -- the Taliban targets any help which is associated with the US military as collaboration with the occupier, which invites retaliation, including the slaughter of villagers. Because the NSP is viewed as a fundamentally Afghan-led program, whose primary mover, former Minister Ehsan Zia, is seen as honest and not part and parcel of the Karzai circle, attacking NSP projects is more problematic for the Taliban. The villagers vote on the projects, own them, and build them, earning much needed wage income in the process. This contrasts with US military-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which are seen as bribes.
Many in the US command have recognized this, and come out for the NSP. Col. Chris Kolenda, a Special Advisor to former commander General Stanley McChrystal, told the Army Times:
"The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has a great program called the National Solidarity Program, where money is given in block grants from an Afghan reconstruction trust fund directly to a village, so the village owns the project, the village operates the project, the people in the village are employed."
Col. Kolenda has witnessed a phenomena which again shows that the insurgency is largely economically-driven, and unsolvable by military occupation. If what Kolenda says is true, it makes the case for the Congress to vote "no" on further funding for military operations and placing its bets for stability on the NSP:
"I've seen time and again, when communities have sufficient support and leverage they just start kicking these [ideologically-driven Taliban] out of their local areas."
Although Rep. Lowey's concern for waste and fraud does not seem to extend to the exponentially larger sums being voted upon for military operations which will wind up in the pockets of American contractors like Halliburton and Dyncorp, her challenge to Obama's development request can nevertheless be seen as an opportunity to examine what works in Afghanistan and what doesn't. An alternative to approving Obama's request for funds which would go mainly to the USAID, which has been criticized on both the American and Afghan side for poor management, would be to direct this sum to deposited in the World Bank trust fund which funds the NSP, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.